Oct 7, 2004 7:12am
The Cult of Personality
1. From http://msnbc.msn.com/id/5197008/site/newsweek/
Personality, Not Policy
The 40th president of the United States undoubtedly had great charm. He also, in the opinion of many, did great harm.
By Anna Quindlen
June 21 issue - When the rumor began floating around Washington that John McCain might be prevailed on to take the second spot on the Democratic presidential ticket, you could almost hear the sibilant sound of political operatives gleefully rubbing their hands together. A war hero! A former POW! Even when McCain demurred, the buzz continued. A straight shooter! A plain talker! A Republican!
How confusing this was to those who understood that the poor cannot eat plain talk and that many a straight shooter is antagonistic to gun control. Senator McCain has opposed so many positions that Sen. John Kerry supports that the notion of the two running together was the ultimate Jekyll-Hyde ticket. Women who care about abortion rights knew that McCain had a zero rating from pro-choice groups; African-Americans knew he had been hostile to affirmative action. But none of that mattered as the dream (or, if you care about issues, nightmare) ticket was hashed over publicly. McCain the stand-up guy utterly trumped his own record.
Last week the man who elevated this triumph of personality over policy was laid to rest, but the shift in emphasis of which he was the greatest standard-bearer lives on. Ronald Reagan was lauded for many things during his long march from his home to the Capitol and back to a gravesite in California, but chief among them was the persona that had beguiled so many. "There you go again," he might have said with that trademark twinkle as he watched the parade of images: fence builder, horseback rider, a man for whom the word "avuncular" might have been newly minted, a man voters liked instinctively from afar.
It was not only that his personality cast his policies in shadow, but that it made them seem improbable. How could a man with such a winning demeanor be so hostile to the poor that he permitted the Agriculture Department to chintz out on school lunches by proclaiming ketchup a vegetable? How could a man who was every inch the fatherly caretaker run up the deficit to nearly three times its former size, fire all those air-traffic controllers and refuse for so long to speak out on behalf of AIDS victims? How could a man who rode the range on horseback support opening public land to developers or contend that trees were responsible for pollution?
Much of the coverage of the former president has done clumsily what he did with style: it has made the man the centerpiece and relegated those pesky political stands to the periphery. Anyone who suggests that charisma was no substitute for the safety net is shouted down with a "not yet" or a "no way." It is presented as bad grace to criticize a man who suffered so long in the shadowy maze of Alzheimer's. But it behooves us now to do precisely what Reagan himself once did: to separate the persona from the positions. The 40th president of the United States undoubtedly had great charm. He also, in the opinion of many, did great harm.
America is a country that saddles its future with a jerry-built past. If we are to go on seeing ourselves as the best of all possible nations, we must smooth away the inconvenient rough spots with the pumice of revision. After Richard Nixon died, it seemed as if the most conspicuous moment of his administration had been opening relations with China, not opening the White House to corruption and disgrace. This may have been charitable and convenient. It did not have the advantage of being accurate.
It is even more important that a balanced picture of the Reagan presidency emerge because its shadow hangs over our political landscape today. Not simply in the suggestion that poverty is a character failure, or that unions are impediments to progress. Not simply in the absurd notion that more money for the wealthy inevitably trickles down to the bottom of the income pyramid, or that the means justify the ends, as some argued in the Iran-contra scandal and as some would argue about the Iraq war today.
It is important that we consider the harm that can be done when we make assumptions based on a winning demeanor that blind us to the actions behind the grin or the glad hand. Sometimes this works in the obverse. There were many reasons that Americans believed Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. There was bad reporting and bad intelligence. But I suspect that many people believed the assertion because he was a bad man. And it was easy to conclude that a bad man will do bad things, even if there is insufficient evidence for one bad thing in particular.
It is also easy to believe that a man who appears good inevitably will do good things. But in modern politics, who and what a man really is, his complexities and his contradictions, can be papered over by TV ads and public events. And no more so than when the man is an actor who has, after many years, found the role he was born to play. It behooves us, at this moment, to understand that we cannot usefully go on like this, conflating likability and leadership.
© 2004 Newsweek, Inc.
2. From http://www.slate.com/id/2106550
Bush can beat Kerry. But can he beat Bill Richardson?
By Bryan Curtis
Posted Friday, Sept. 10, 2004, at 2:58 PM PT
LAS CRUCES, N.M.--Al Gore won New Mexico by 366 votes in 2000, and I've managed to track down the man who delivered them. His name is Chuck Davis, and he has agreed to meet for coffee at Days Hamburgers (est. 1932) in downtown Las Cruces. "Are you a liberal?" he jokes, sipping coffee from a Styrofoam cup. "OK, I'll talk to you." On Election Day 2000, George W. Bush appeared to narrowly win New Mexico's five electoral votes. But more than three weeks later, with the nation's attention glued to Florida, Davis, a retired engineer from White Sands, "discovered" 500 Gore votes that had somehow eluded the counters. Amid the howls of local Republicans, New Mexico shifted into the Gore column. If Gore had carried one more small state--West Virginia, say, or New Hampshire--New Mexico might have been Florida and Davis its Katherine Harris.
Davis, who has sandy, close-cropped hair and thick glasses, doesn't look like a crooked Chicago precinct captain. That he unearthed the "Las Cruces 500," he says, was pure kismet. Davis had wandered into Dona Ana County's adobe courthouse one morning, when he ran into the county clerk, Rita Torres. Torres needed a Democrat to monitor the formal vote canvassing, so Davis joined a Republican operative in Room 104. "I was sitting there next to the Republican representative, and he said, 'Look at all these stupid Democrats, they didn't even vote for president,' " Davis says. "It just didn't jibe." In fact, a worker in a heavily Democratic precinct had scrawled the number "620" on a tally sheet so poorly that it looked like "120"--thus, 500 Gore votes had vanished. Davis buzzed Democratic leaders in Albuquerque, and as Fox News correspondents descended on Las Cruces, he barricaded himself in his house outside of town. He had never before granted an interview. "I was out of that little room before you know it," he says.
There's a useful metaphor in Chuck Davis--shy, almost painfully earnest--for the entire state of New Mexico. Unlike the cranks in New Hampshire and Iowa, who flaunt their electoral importance, New Mexicans seem slightly frightened by all the attention they're receiving this year. The state has a grueling history of anonymity: New Mexico magazine has a column called "One of Our 50 Is Missing," in which readers detail their encounters with Americans who have never heard of New Mexico. But since January, Bush and John Kerry have showered New Mexico with love, visiting four times each and papering the state with soft-focus campaign ads. New Mexico's hyperactive governor, Bill Richardson, was selected to chair the Democratic Convention in Boston.
When I visited Las Cruces in August, Kerry seemed poised to score a knockout. He had led in John Zogby's New Mexico poll all summer, at times by nearly 10 points. (Kerry still leads by 9.7 percent in Zogby's latest survey.) Consultants were speculating that Bush might well withdraw his ads here and funnel the money into must-win contests in Ohio and Florida. But last Sunday, an Albuquerque Journal poll showed that Bush had pulled ahead, 45 percent to 42 percent--and the survey was taken before Bush's speech at the Republican Convention. I called Kerry's Albuquerque headquarters, expecting furious denials, denunciations of the poll's methodology, etc. Here's what I got instead: "We're very excited that after one month of negative barrages, we're within the margin of error," said a spokesman. Kerry 2004: Excited to be within the margin of error!
Why does New Mexico find itself lumped in with the larger, vote-rich swing states? Mainly because it's an unbelievably cheap date. Thirty-second commercials on Albuquerque's 10 p.m. newscasts--which reach up to 75 percent of the state's population--usually run about $1,000. The state is so inexpensive that it even attracts Libertarians: Presidential candidate Michael Badnarik spent more than $65,000 on a TV commercial, "Peace President," that aired only in New Mexico.
Bush and Kerry covet New Mexico's Hispanics, who make up 42 percent of the state's population. Compared with California and Arizona, which have large numbers of recent immigrants, New Mexican Hispanics tend to be more assimilated and thus more open to Republican overtures. "We have a very different history here," says Chris Garcia, a University of New Mexico political scientist. "We have Hispanics that go back to the 1600s. We have more Hispanic public officials, more Hispanics penetrated into society, more highly educated." For Bush, capturing New Mexico would provide indisputable evidence that he has finally made lasting inroads with Hispanic voters, a jihad he began in 1998 in Texas. For Kerry, a win would offer hope that as Hispanic populations grow, Democrats can compete in Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada--if not now, then maybe 2008.
Lastly, there's the Bill Richardson Factor. I took a Democratic lobbyist to breakfast to find out just how large Richardson looms over state politics. "He strong-arms people," the lobbyist said. "He demands absolute loyalty. If he could do it, he'd behead the people that go against him." As David Plotz has pointed out, Richardson staked his national career on the art of the schmooze. He once set the Guinness record for most hands shaken in a single day (nearly 8,500) and at the United Nations had a reputation as a shambling, slightly goofy operator. But in New Mexico, the lobbyist told me, many Democrats regard him with suspicion and dread. "He's not one of us--not a plebe," the lobbyist said. "He's not from here, wasn't raised here. [Richardson was born in California and spent part of his childhood in Mexico City.] He came here for one reason: running for office."
Richardson believes he's destined to be the first minority candidate to run on a national ticket. (When it became obvious Kerry was leaning another way for vice president this summer, Richardson dramatically withdrew his name from consideration.) A Kerry collapse in New Mexico could effectively snuff out Richardson's big plans--see what Bush's 2000 losses in Michigan and Wisconsin did for the careers of John Engler and Tommy Thompson. "His organization in the state will be activated," says Richardson aide Billy Sparks. "And the governor plans on campaigning extensively." I have no doubt George Bush can beat John Kerry in New Mexico. It's less clear whether he can overcome Bill Richardson's vanity.
Related on the Web
Joe Monahan, a valuable resource for this story, writes New Mexico's premier political blog.
Bryan Curtis is a Slate associate editor. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.